The swashbuckling rock rebels of Radio Caroline

In the Sixties, only one station truly tuned into the spirit of the age. Radio Caroline sparked a pop revolution – and now it's inspired a movie. John Walsh sails back in time

Sometimes," remembers Dave Lee Travis, "when the weather was really rough, we had to attach an old two-shilling piece on to the arm of the record player to keep the needle weighted down on the record against all the pitching and tossing. And when it got really bad out there, we'd call it a Half-Crown Day."

With its quaint references to pre-decimal currency and ancient audio systems, this sentence must sound like a foreign language to anyone born after the Sixties. But it summons up rich feelings of nostalgia for early rock 'n' rollers. The needle that Travis remembers so fondly landed in the grooves of a million records spinning on turntables in the production suite of a ship anchored in the North Sea, broadcasting the heady excitement of early Beatles and Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks, Motown and Stax, to a British audience mostly starved of rock rhythms, crashing drums and invitations to Spend the Night Together.

It was the heyday of offshore pirate radio, a short-lived but vividly recalled phenomenon of the mid-Sixties, when bedtime for children and teenagers meant taking your transistor radio under the covers, tuning to 199 metres, medium wave, and listening through your plastic earpiece as a succession of hyperactive, logorrheic young men introduced records, whooped with glee, sang along, talked like carnival barkers, made suggestive remarks, told childish jokes, did animal impressions, speculated about the behaviour of listeners in their boudoirs, held competitions and never seemed to calm down or sleep. It was our first experience of 24-hour radio, and of the cult of the disc jockey. And it's the subject of the new film by the British director and cash cow of our indigenous movie world, Richard Curtis.

In 1964, the mainstream music radio shows heard on the BBC's Light Programme (which became Radio 2) were relatively staid affairs hosted by polite "presenters" rather than DJs – affable, rather suave men such as David Jacobs, Brian Matthew and Pete Murray. They played all the groovy new pop records – Herman's Hermits, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Cliff Richard, Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Beatles – but in a hefty smorgasbord that included helpings of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Frankie Vaughan, Ray Charles, novelty records and elevator jazz. The DJs had technicians to spin the records for them, as though to soil their hands with technology was beneath their dignity. Between them, they played about three hours of rock 'n' roll a week. Since the mid-Sixties was the heyday, the Golden Age, of British and US rock, this was a scandal. Or as Richard Curtis put it at a preview last week: "This was the worst mismatch of supply and demand in history, with the possible exception of Cheryl Cole and all the people who want to go out with her."

British radio piracy didn't happen by accident. It was the work of an extraordinary young Irish entrepreneur called Ronan O'Rahilly. At only 25, O'Rahilly had taken London by storm. He ran a Soho club called Scene. He was an agent and PR man for pop singers and actors, and numbered among his clients George Lazenby, the wooden male model who played James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (O'Rahilly gave Lazenby the worst career advice in history. When the latter was offered a seven-film deal by the Bond producers, the agent advised against it, on the grounds that Bond would be passé by 1970.)

Among his musical charges was Georgie Fame, the young keyboard player with the perfect delivery for blues and jazz. Fame was having trouble getting his music played. O'Rahilly formed his own record company to put Fame on disc, and hawked the result around the BBC and Radio Luxembourg (a commercial station broadcasting from the Grand Duchy) without success. With remarkable chutzpah, he decided that, if the available stations wouldn't play his clients' music, he would create his own one – without going to the British government for a licence.

Offshore radio – broadcasting across national airwaves legally because the station is located outside national waters – had existed for a few years. Scandinavia had started it in 1958, followed by Radio Veronica in Holland. But it was hard to set up: you needed, for one thing, a boat. By a happy stroke of synergy, O'Rahilly's businessman father owned the port of Greenore in Northern Ireland, where lay an old, 763-ton, Danish passenger ferry called the MV Frederica.

Through his record company, O'Rahilly raised enough money to reinvent the vessel as a radio ship. He renamed it Caroline after Caroline Kennedy, the six-year-old daughter of the late US president, whose sweet image in a magazine had appealed to him. He anchored the MV Caroline in the North Sea, in international waters near Frinton, Essex. He put the word out that he was looking for disc jockeys, recruited at startling speed – and on Easter Sunday, 29 March 1964, random twiddlers of radio dials across the nation could hear the voices of Simon Dee and Chris Moore announce: "This is Radio Caroline on 199, your all-day music station." The first song they played was (ironically) The Rolling Stones's "It's All Over Now".

Meanwhile, a rival had appeared in the form of Australian businessman Alan Crawford, who owned the Mi Amigo, formerly part of the Swedish radio station, Radio Nord. Crawford fitted out the ship and began broadcasting on 12 May as Radio Atlanta. For O'Rahilly, it was like encountering an irritating twin. But he and Crawford made common cause, the two stations merged, the Frederica sailed to anchorage beside the Isle of Man, and became Radio Caroline North; the Mi Amigo stayed offshore from Frinton as Radio Caroline South.

The pirates lasted three years, until August 1967, broadcasting 24 hours a day, selling advertising space (which, with the exception of Radio Luxembourg, was something new to British radio) and setting the tone for every chatty, breezily intimate, harmlessly matey DJ who followed. Their ship-bound camaraderie communicated itself to listeners as a spirit of carefree liberty that prefigured the hippy explosion. Caroline's popularity grew until it could claim 25 million listeners – half the population of Great Britain. It's the sense of complicity between pop DJs and their audience that Richard Curtis has tried to harness in The Boat That Rocked, his second film as writer-director after Love Actually. In the movie, Radio Caroline has become Radio Rock, heading for the last days of its reign before the government deep-sixes it with legislation.

The DJs are played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (as The Count, a hip but conceited American based on Emperor Rosko), Rhys Ifans ("the coolest man on earth," dressed in a very gay purple hat), Nick Frost from Shaun of the Dead (as Dave – fat, lecherous and sarcastic), Chris O'Dowd from The IT Crowd (as Simon, an Irish dreamer who falls foul of a scheming woman played by January Jones from Mad Men), and Rhys Darby from Flight of the Conchords (Angus, an Australian buffoon from the genus of Alan "Fluff" Freeman). Bill Nighy, a veteran player in Richard Curtis's screen family, plays the O'Rahilly character, Quentin, complete with velvet jacket and long cigarette-holder.

It's an ensemble comedy with a warm heart: funny in places but more dedicated to matey larks and collective enthusiasm than jokes. There's Carry On slapstick, sex, and a small spliff reference in the trailer that seems to have been dropped from the final cut. But is it a true representation of life at sea in 1966?



***

"I don't want to be seen to support this film," says Dave Lee Travis, one of the early arrivals on Radio Caroline (and still broadcasting on Magic Gold). "No, I haven't seen it – but I know one or two things about it that are wrong. People will watch it and say, 'Oh – that's what it was like on board Radio Caroline.' But it wasn't. I don't mean just the physical details. There are bits of naughtiness on the part of the people who made it, but I'm not going further than that."

Johnnie Walker, another Radio Caroline star and one of the few who remained after the government outlawed the pirates in 1967, has less of a bone to pick with the film-makers. He was, after all, called in by Curtis as an "adviser", along with Chris Evans and Chris Moyles, who were asked to advise the actors how you conduct an hour-long radio show broadcasting to millions. What production details about the Caroline and her crew did Curtis want to find out?

"Nothing, actually," said Walker. "I think Richard didn't want to do much research at all. He studiously avoided books about pirate radio, including my autobiography. He listened in when he was a boy, he loved the pirates and wanted to create his fictional idea of what it was like."

Did Walker like the movie? "I think for younger people, born after the whole pirate thing, it's an introduction to an really exciting, rebellious time in British history. If Curtis had stuck to the real story, it would've been a dull film, because we lived quite boring lives." Walker (born Peter Dingley) started spinning records at the Locarno Ballroom in Birmingham. The day after he lost his day job as a car salesman, someone at a DJ gig asked if he'd heard of a pirate station called Radio England.

"I found the whole concept," he says, "glamorous and romantic and exciting." He discovered the station's whereabouts, took them an audition tape and was duly hired.

How was his first day on board ship? "Once I got over the excitement of seeing a proper radio studio for the first time, and an enormous transmitter, Radio England was a bit disappointing. There were no cabins or bunks; no sleeping accommodation had been built for DJs, so we bedded down in sleeping bags in the hold. The American planners had just wanted to get the ship on the air as quickly as possible."

That seems, I venture, amazingly short-sighted of the planners. "It was worse than that. There were rumours that the boat had been used to ship back dead GIs from Korea, and that the hold we slept in was where they put the body bags..."

Walker soon jumped ship, when he learnt that Radio England was scheduled to change to a Dutch format. "I went up to London, went to Wimbledon Palais where they were having a "Caroline Night Out" and next day I was in Caroline House, my tape was played to Ronan, and word came back to me: "How soon can you make it to the ship?"

Like many Sixties scenesters, he took to the entrepreneurial O'Rahilly straight away. "I was captivated by him, He had enormous charm, huge charisma and he made you believe that anything was possible. He epitomised the spirit of the Sixties." Did he direct his DJs as to the kind of music he wanted? "He believed in freedom," says Walker, like a good Sixties kid. "He used to say, 'Why hire people who know and are enthusiastic about music, then tell them what they should and shouldn't play?'"

Dave Lee Travis was raised in Manchester and found his DJ-ing feet in the city's groovy clubs. In 1964 he spent some time touring in America with Herman's Hermits; back in England, he "thought radio might be fun. I'd heard about the pirate ships, so I went down there and managed to talk myself into a job. I'd no idea then how important it was going to be in changing the face of British broadcasting." He found O'Rahilly "a man with a mission, basically. He was determined to make his pirate radio work, he felt very strongly about it. He was a very forward-thinking guy."

Travis's first day on board was memorable. "At dinner, the captain welcomed me, sat me down with rest of crew, and said, 'Just for Dave's benefit, we'll have to go through the lifeboat drill.' They told me if the alarm sounded, we had to go up and stand by the boats and that I was stationed on the top deck. I'd only been asleep for a couple of hours when alarm went off. I got out of bed, was about to put my trousers on when someone grabbed my hand and said, 'No time for that, quick quick!' So I was in my underpants in the North Sea, I went up to my post by a boat on top deck and I stood there almost naked, freezing my arse off, waiting for instructions. After five minutes, I thought, Nobody's given me orders, I can't hear anything, this is crazy – and as I went downstairs, I heard muffled laughter. It was a first-night wind-up. I unloosed a lot of expletives."

The real-life Radio Caroline resembled Radio Rock in having two-berth cabins for the DJs, but had no bar or entertainment area. "It had a mess hall, with tables bolted to the floor, nothing too fancy, you understand. And you couldn't go sunbathing on the top deck because there wasn't much call for that in the North Sea...."

And so we reach a crucial question: just how did a dozen or so type-A personality, pop-savvy young men in their early twenties, with millions of adoring fans writing to them, keep themselves entertained? Drink? Drugs? Relentless sexual intercourse? The question exercises Travis a bit. "Naow," he says with a grimace. "That's the whole thing, isn't it? The film's going to be full of that. They'll probably think of every conceivable thing young fellows could get up to. Sadly, it was a bit more boring. We didn't have women on board, or parties. There'd be five or six DJs, plus the Dutch crew. What we were doing was changing the face of pop-music Britain. It was brilliant to be able to choose our own music from the record library. In my time I've been to so many stations where some young guys, who've been put in to run the station, give you a list of records to play, and don't know what they're doing."



***

Naturally, The Boat That Rocked indeed features some of the behavioural extremes that Travis denies. Chief among them is sex. At the start of the film we meet Quentin's godson Carl, an 18-year-old virgin expelled from public school, who is looking for girls. His determination to lose his virginity is a plot strand, as is the sexual prowess of a young sex god called Midnight Mark who recreates the famous album sleeve of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland with a score of naked girls around him. Later, a party of competition winners comes on board and pairs off with the cooler DJs. "Oh God," breathes Irish DJ Simon, looking over the side, "It's like a boatful of honey."

Walker groans. "The idea of a competition with 200 winners coming to the ship, including 100 girls, didn't happen. I wish we'd had half the fun that The Boat That Rocked DJs did." Did women never appear on the boat at all? "During the summer, couples in sailing boats would come alongside and, if we had a friendly captain, he'd allow them to tie up. We'd get the engineer to take the boyfriend on a tour of the generators, and us DJs would move in on the girlfriend, and give her a tour of the more, er, social areas of the ship." Did the DJs never carouse? "At Christmas we'd crack open a few beers. Towards the end of Caroline, there was some marijuana and we'd smoke a few spliffs. But the wild times were on shore. A week's shore-leave would be non-stop party, and the hardest thing was getting to Liverpool Street station at 8.30am on Monday morning – the greatest sin was to miss the train to Harwich."

The end for Caroline came at 3pm on 14 August 1967, when the government, annoyed by the legal loophole that had allowed it to invade the airwaves, implemented the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, making it illegal for persons subject to UK law to work on, supply or advertise on pirate ships. (In the film, a campaign to outlaw our heroes is conducted by a nasty government minister called Dormandy, played by Kenneth Branagh.) Other stations, such as Radio London, were forced off the air. Most Caroline DJs departed for the mainland. Not, however, Johnnie Walker. Why did he choose to stick around? "I totally believed in what Radio Caroline was doing, and I knew that for millions of people the station was part of their life. I didn't see the fairness of taking it off the air. I knew the BBC would produce a very insipid imitation of pirate radio. So when Ronan said, "I want to keep Radio Caroline going, I said, 'If so, I want to be a part of it.'"

Radio Caroline kept broadcasting illegally until March 1968, when the money ran out. "There was a Dutch company which made sure the ships could maintain their anchorages in terms of diesel oil and supply boats. When the bills stopped being paid, they sent tugs, hijacked the ships and tugged them into Amsterdam."

It was an ignominious ending to an heroic enterprise, but it had fomented a revolution. Ronan O'Rahilly's initial desire was to get clients' records played; three years later, the BBC's conservative music policy was dead, and the airwaves were full of pop on Radio 1, featuring a score of former pirate DJs. Years later, when the BBC's monopoly was broken and commercial radio arrived, the situation sounded oddly familiar. It sounded as if the pirates were back.

Caroline's Greatest Hits: Download the memories

The Beach Boys Wouldn't It Be Nice

The Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever

The Rolling Stones (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction

Otis Redding My Girl

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Purple Haze

Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston It Takes Two

Tom Jones It's Not Unusual

Cliff Richard The Minute You're Gone

Herman's Hermits I'm Into Something Good

The Byrds Mr Tambourine Man

The Supremes You Can't Hurry Love

Donovan Mellow Yellow

The Yardbirds Shapes of Things

The Who My Generation

Sandie Shaw (There's) Always Something There to Remind Me

The Small Faces All or Nothing

Cream I Feel Free

The Four Tops I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

The Seekers I'll Never Find Another You

The Righteous Brothers Unchained Melody

Bob Dylan Like a Rolling Stone

The Kinks You Really Got Me

The Troggs With a Girl Like You

The Monkees I'm a Believer



Watch a trailer for 'The Boat that Rocked' and enter our competition at independent.co.uk/tbtrcomp

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